Three weeks ago, Americans went to the polls. Voters were deeply divided on whether Democrats or Republicans should be in charge. Donald Trump is the President-Elect losing the popular vote by more than two million people. But there is one thing that Americans are not divided on. One issue that they sent a message loud and clear. According to exit polls, 70% of voters said they think that the American economy and the lawmakers who oversee it are owned by big companies and special interests. That 70% of everybody: Republicans, Democrats, Independents.
In the closing days of this congress, big pharma has its hand out for a bunch of special giveaways and favors that are packed together in something called the 21st Century Cures Bill. It is on track to get a vote in the House this week and then get rammed through the Senate. And I’ve been taking a look at the details here. When the American voters say that Congress is owned by big companies, this bill is exactly what they're talking about.
So now we face a choice. Will this congress say, yes, we're bought and paid for? Or will we stand up and work for the American people? For more than two years Congress has been working on legislation to help advance medical innovation in the United States. Now, medical innovation is powerfully important, and I spent as much time working on this issue as anything I’ve worked on since I joined the United States Senate. From the beginning I have emphasized one really obvious fact. Medical breakthroughs come from increasing investments in basic research.
Right now congress is choking off investments in the NIH. Adjusted for inflation, federal spending on medical research over the past dozen years has been cut by 20%. Those cuts take the legs out from under future medical innovation in America. You know, we can name a piece of legislation, a Cures Bill, but if it doesn't include significant, meaningful funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, it won't cure anything. And that's why months ago Senate Democrats said any so-called cures legislation must have significant investment in medical research. And that's why Senate Republicans publicly committed to do exactly that. But now they have reneged on their promise and let big pharma hijack the Cures Bill.
This final deal has only a tiny fig leaf of funding for NIH and for the opioid crisis. And most of that fig leaf isn't even real. Most of the money won't be there, unless future congresses pass future bills in future years to fund those dollars. So why bother with a fig leaf in the cures bill? Why pretend to give money to NIH or opioids? Because this funding is political cover for huge giveaways to giant drug companies.
There are more examples than I can count in this bill, but I’m going to talk about three. First giveaway -- legalized fraud. You know, it is against the law for drug companies to market drugs for uses not approved by the FDA. Now, some drug companies find this rule annoying. After all, they could make a lot more money selling a headache pill as a cure for everything from hair loss to cancer. But pushing treatments without scientific evidence that they work is fraud, fraud that can hurt people. It also undercuts the development of real cures, and that is why some of the largest law enforcement actions against big drug companies over the past 15 years have involved off-label marketing. Drug companies have paid billions of dollars in penalties. Now, one solution would be for those companies to follow the law, but they prefer plan b, cozy up to enough people in Congress to pass this Cures Bill that would shoot holes in the antifraud law. In other words, make it easier for drug companies to get away with fraud.
Second giveaway, cover up bribery. Right now, the law requires drug companies to disclose the buckets of money that they shower on doctors and hospitals to encourage them to prescribe certain drugs. It is, by the way, all published on a government web site. You can go look up your doctor and your hospital right now online if you want to do that. Now, the drug companies could have responded by ending kickbacks to doctors, but instead they have chosen plan b again. Cozy up to enough people in Congress to pass this Cures Bill that would let drug companies keep secret any splashy junkets or gifts associated with so-called medical education and make it harder for enforcement agencies to be able to trace those bribes. Senator Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, says he is outraged by this provision, and I’ve got to say -- I’m with Senator Grassley on this one.
Third giveaway -- hand out dangerous special deals to Republican campaign contributors. According to news reports, a major Republican donor stands to benefit financially from selling cellular and regenerative medical therapies. If this guy had his way, he would be able to sell them to desperate people without a final FDA determination that those therapies were either safe or effective. Of course, that would be against the law right now, so this megadonor has poured millions of dollars into Mitch McConnell’s personal campaign coffers and into his Republican Super PAC and now he wants his reward. The Cures Act offers to sell government favors. It delivers a special deal so that people can sell these treatments without meeting the FDA gold standards for protecting patient safety and making sure these drugs actually do some good.
You know, keep in mind, people could die from using unproven treatments. In fact, people have already died during carefully controlled research experiments on these types of treatments. Congress should not be in the business of selling FDA favors to the highest bidders, risking people's lives to enrich political donors. Let's be clear. What the Republicans are proposing is corrupt, and it is very, very dangerous.
And there's more. Republicans decided to hand out gifts for other special interests. The Cures Act, a bill that is supposed to be about medical innovation as a giveaway to the Gun Lobby. The bill cuts Medicare funding. It raids money from the Affordable Care Act. It takes health care dollars that should have gone to Puerto Rico. It makes it harder for people with disabilities to get Medicaid services. There is a lot of bad stuff in this bill. A lot of bad stuff.
But not everything in the bill is bad. Republican leaders are playing a crafty game here, trying to buy off Democratic votes one by one by tacking on good, bipartisan proposals that Senators in both parties have worked on in good faith for years. There's a bipartisan mental health bill, bipartisan provisions protecting the genetic privacy of patients, bipartisan provisions to give some very limited funding for important priorities like the national opioid crisis and the Vice President's cancer moon shot. There's a proposal in here to improve foster care.
I support most of these proposals. I've worked on many of them for years. I even wrote some of them myself. If this bill becomes law, there is no question it will contain some real legislative accomplishments. But I cannot vote for this bill. I will fight it because I know the difference between compromise and extortion. Compromise is putting together commonsense health proposals supported by Democrats, by Republicans and by most of the American people and passing them into law. Extortion is holding those exact same proposals hostage unless everyone agrees to special favors for campaign donors and giveaways to the richest drug companies in the world. Compromise is when senators, Democrats and Republicans, find the way forward on issues that matter to their constituents. Extortion is telling those same senators to forget what your constituents want.
We will do nothing with the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs and nothing to increase medical research. Instead, every important commonsense bipartisan bill on mental health and genetic privacy and opioid addiction and foster care and anything else will die today unless Democrats agree to make it easier for drug companies to commit fraud, to give out kickbacks and to put patients' lives at risk. This demand is enough to make me gag.
Scientists who invent new cures should be celebrated along with the companies that support them, but let me be perfectly clear -- while the drug industry may get a seat at the table, they do not own the table. I do not care how many armies of lawyers and lobbyists they send out. I do not care how many campaign contributions they dump into congressional pockets. I do not care how painful they can make life for politicians who oppose them. I will not be their lackey. I will work for the hundreds of thousands of scientists and doctors who are committed to saving lives and who are waiting for Congress to fund their work. I will work for the millions of families that have been touched by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer and other deadly diseases who are counting on this research. I will work for the 70% of voters who are sick of a congress that is owned by big donors and giant corporations.
Republicans are taking over congress. They are taking over the White House. But Republicans do not have majority support in this country. The majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republican ones, and the majority supported a Democratic Presidential candidate over a Republican one. The American people didn't give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead. They didn't send us here to whimper, whine or grovel. They sent us here to say no to efforts to sell Congress to the highest bidder. They sent us here to stand up for what is right, and now they are watching, waiting and hoping, hoping that we will show some spine and start fighting back. When congress ignores the message of the American people and returns to the old ways of doing business. Republicans will control this government, but they cannot hand that control over to big corporations unless Democrats roll over and allow them to do so.
It is time for Democrats, Democrats and Republicans who should be ashamed by this kind of corruption to make it clear exactly who they work for. Does the Senate work for big pharma that hires lobbyists and people who make giant campaign contributions? Or does the Senate work for the American people who actually sent us here?
Thank you, Madam President.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.